Phantom Thread: Daniel Day-Lewis' last role is 'tailor-made' for the actor who has never played himself onscreen
It is safe to say that Day-Lewis' character in Phantom Thread is 'modeled' on his off-screen persona.
Daniel Day-Lewis, for most of his career, has been his directors' ideal muse. They have adorned him with a plethora of characters which he seems to have slipped into effortlessly. But it is no secret the amount of effort he invests into every character as he is often credited with introducing, or at least promoting, method acting.
But what an actor is to a character is exactly what a model is to an attire. They are merely carriers, vessels or mediums and thus, have to be completely hollow internally. This hollowness often stems from how close one is to one's primal self. But with the rawness comes a spirit that is untameable.
In what he has claimed to be his last film, Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, Day-Lewis plays a punctilious fashion designer who sees, in Vicky Krieps' character, his perfect muse. Krieps' profile, however, deviates from what is considered 'ideal' for a contemporary model. She is inexperienced, clumsy and has a little belly — which is exactly the way Day-Lewis likes the carriers of his elegant outfits to be.
To his disappointment, Krieps refuses to metamorphosise into the vector of his fashion bug. She refuses to bow down to his objective fashion standards and decides to asserts her individuality. "But I do not like this dress," she asserts. "You will develop your taste," he retorts. "Maybe I will not." And then Day-Lewis gets the last laugh by shutting her up.
The egotistical streak is almost a must in an artiste. And for a designer as successful and revered as his character in the film, ego is an indispensable part of his repertoire. But this ego gets eclipsed by his vulnerability when he spots the feisty Krieps in a countryside restaurant, inviting her to be his favourite muse.
In a realm as cyclical as fashion and style, Day-Lewis' character swears by his personal taste which is the Bible to his team of a dozen female dressmakers. To expect his muse to submit to his preferences defeats the purpose of choosing her in the first place.
A muse, like an actor, distinguishes herself with her nakedness, her bareness that cannot be replicate by any other individual. Since individualistic expression is the primary requisite, how can she be expected to carry pieces of cloth that she does not feel for. But unlike her designer, she is devoid of expertise in couture.
Thus, the relationship of a muse and a designer is by nature, a parasitic one — just like that of a thread and a needle. They feed off each other at the expense of their respective strengths. For one to flourish, the other must be willing to offer themselves on a platter. There is no space for two aggressive individuals.
The same complicated relationship is what probably defines the struggles Day-Lewis has undergone throughout his career. His methodical approach may have fetched him three Academy Awards but would have also taken a toll on his individuality. To strip yourself of your personality, acclamatise yourself in the shoes of a remote character and then cleanse yourself once you are in complete control of that character's life is an extremely exhausting process.
But the fact that Day-Lewis is able to pull off any character with apparent ease means that he is willing to surrender himself to the director's vision. Does it then make him a lesser actor in terms of spontaneity? Does this approach distance him from his primeval instinct. Can he only be credited for resisting the temptation of choosing his individuality over the director's vision?
After watching his most recent performance in Phantom Thread, this writer is compelled to contest this assumption. He plays a character intimately associated with what seems his real self. He plays a painstaking perfectionist, probably the closest to his real self. To his credit, he plays it extremely well despite the fact that it's his last film in a three decade long career.
His closer-to-home character in Phantom Thread comes after years of playing innumerable characters. All the characters must have left a bit of themselves in the deepest recesses of his being. Despite living the lives of so many men over the years, if Day-Lewis has managed to return to a familiar turf. After years of embracing unfamiliarity, to be able to get hold of your primal instinct is a job as tough as slipping into your first dress after years of posing in clothes that do not belong to you.
It is safe to say that Day-Lewis' character in Phantom Thread is 'modeled' on his off-screen persona. Having played himself after essaying a diverse range of humans, Day-Lewis probably may have attained self actualisation. And that is probably the reason why he does not want to play muse for another director.
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